Reflections on #Leadership: Miyagi and Millennials

In the original Karate Kid film, the “kid,” Daniel LaRusso, learns martial arts from one of the most memorable characters in film, Mr. Miyagi.  The diminutive sensei’s non-traditional teaching methods complement his quiet, unassuming, and non-confrontational style.  As Miyagi steadfastly persists with unusual and demanding training methods, he is clearly emotionally invested in his young pupil. Miyagi listens to Daniel’s concerns as he adjusts and grows as a result of their relationship.  

His foil, the sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo, lives by the motto, “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy.”  While the filmmakers threw in a heavy dose of sadism to make him more unlikeable, the Cobra Kai sensei is otherwise a stereotype of many military leaders: a single-minded, charismatic, force of nature, ruthlessly shaping his pupils to remove all their weakness.  Although he leads by example and espouses a tempting standard of excellence, his hard leadership style displays weaknesses in personal relationships and asymmetric challenges.  Faced with a unique set of challenges posed by reduced resources, the pace of technology, and the changing views of leading the newest generation of service members, military leaders would do well to embrace the humility of Mr. Miyagi to become more effective in the next several years.

Humility is a modest opinion of one’s own capability and importance. It acknowledges the fact that all of us are human, inadequate in some way, prone to a wide variety of mistakes, and limited in our intellectual, emotional, and physical capabilities.  Humility is an accurate psychological situational awareness, founded by security in ourselves. It lies in the center ground between arrogance and timidity.

A humble leader rejects projecting an image of himself as better, stronger, or more capable, in the hopes of gaining respect and influence. The arrogant sensei in the film teaches his students that they should never expose any vulnerability to their adversary. Portraying strength, unfaltering and over-inflated competence, and charisma are critical to a certain style of military leadership, which creates an illusion that the military leader is their job. This behavior creates a firm wall between the leader and their subordinates, degrading interpersonal relationships and isolating the leader from feedback (incidentally, prime conditions for the Bathsheba syndrome).[1] 

Taken to the other extreme, thinking too little of oneself, a leader becomes passive and cowardly, incapable of the confidence required to articulate a vision, or the courage required to execute it. Thinking themselves incapable, these leaders fall prey to the whims of the first assertive personality they come across, they waffle and hedge on decisions, and their unit must quickly find ways to work around them, or become irrelevant. 

“People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think of themselves less.”[2]  - C. S. Lewis

In a leadership context, the foundation of true humility is security in oneself. It does not imply a lack of competence; humility must be matched by a depth of capability and will. In fact, it only works when a leader possesses competence and is secure in it.  Humility does not reflect the importance one places in their position or organization. 

In Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the ultimate leader as one who is “a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.”[3]  This is because humble leaders replace their self-interest with the good of the unit. They are able to avoid the pull towards self-importance and arrogance by acknowledging their personal inadequacy in the face of immense responsibility required by our calling: defense of our nation, and the care of the men and women in our charge. Humility in military leaders should be a reflection of the principle learned early in all military training, that the team is more important than the individual.

In the Cobra Kai dojo, and as often seen in military culture, initiates are required to earn the respect of their military leaders by proving themselves worthy, while respect from subordinates is expected from the start. Today’s military leaders should recognize the worth of their people from the start. This doesn’t mean throwing out or inverting the chain of command, rather, it means being willing to listen to ideas and different perspectives and sharing your own thought process. Because they are secure, humble leaders willingly invite subordinates into their decision calculus. Letting juniors behind the curtain requires vulnerability, but can also highlight the capability and will of the leader, building trust and respect. This skill is especially effective with the most recent generation to join the service - sometimes referred to as millennials.

Criticism against millennials revolves around the perception that they consider themselves the center of their universe. As the theory goes, they are the children of ‘helicopter’ parents, told they were special, valued for their opinions, involved in all decisions, and affirmed for their effort and intent, not their outcomes. This narrative sits at odds with traditional military culture that often insists that everyone is expendable, failure to meet the standard is unacceptable (regardless of effort), and one’s opinion matters only after they have achieved seniority. 

The poorly understood advantage of these millennials is because they expect to be part of the conversation, they are also pre-wired for the superb qualities of ownership, buy-in, and involvement, but only if they understand the purpose. Military leaders with humility are happy to answer the “why” in order to win over this generation. Millennials will return the favor, submitting their best ideas, feedback, and effort, because the humble leader is approachable and takes them seriously.

Humility allows a leader to remove the bias most people apply to their own ideas and vision. 

Today, constrained and unstable resources are the norm and the frenetic pace of technological change is only increasing. Our nation expects its military leaders to be capable of innovation and decision-making. We can clearly not do things the way we always have due to reductions in the number of training days, flying hours, bullets, ranges, and people. Because a humble leader isn’t threatened by new ideas or worried about how they are perceived, they take ideas from others and assimilate new conditions more easily. 

Humility allows a leader to remove the bias most people apply to their own ideas and vision. They make better decisions when only concerned about making the right choice, and not how that choice makes them appear, or who gets the credit for the idea.  Humble leaders are less constrained in sticking with a course of action, and can learn from mistakes more easily, since they are willing to admit them.

In the film’s conclusion, Mr. Miyagi’s pupil, Daniel, takes on a sequence of Cobra Kai students in a karate tournament. The Cobra Kai’s fighters frequently look to their sensei for instruction, which he frequently gives; they are fit and disciplined automatons.  Daniel, meanwhile, can act independently. He knows how Mr. Miyagi thinks and is not afraid to change his style, adopting a new technique in the film’s final scene which allows him to be victorious.  Miyagi’s humility has enabled his protégé to develop and become independent. Today’s military leaders have enough challenges and tough decisions to keep them busy. They need junior leaders to take some of the load. More importantly, leaders owe it to their people to train them in leadership and not just operations.

Humility is always an important characteristic for leaders to possess. However, because it builds trust and ownership with millennials, it makes contemporary leaders more adaptable and innovative, an essential quality for the coming years. In fact, military millennials who are mentored and supervised by humble “Miyagis” today will likely be the leaders that win moral and military victories for decades to come.

Ryan Tewell is a U.S. Navy officer currently serving as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He has served in various leadership positions, including Command, for the past 20 years. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government

Header image: Raven Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) at a combined arms live fire exercise, National Training Center, California. May 2016 | Jason KoxvoldBridge Featured Contributor.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

 Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker, “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders,” Journal of Business Ethics, April 1993, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 265-273.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York : MacMillan Pub. Co., 1952.

[3] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Pub. Inc., 2001.